How to start listening to vinyl records

Closeup of a pink colored record being played on a turntable.

Vinyl records are a great option for music fans who want to build a physical music collection. But getting started can be daunting if you’ve only ever listened to music on your phone. Here’s everything you need to know.

Start with a turntable

The first thing you’ll need to start listening to vinyl records is a turntable. But then comes the hard part: what to look for in a turntable? Is it acceptable to use an economical turntable?

The good news is that budget turntables are better than ever. An inexpensive turntable these days often has similar performance to high-end turntables a few decades ago. Although you could spend thousands on turntables, a budget model like the Audio-Technica AT-LP60X will handle everything you need.

One interesting aspect of turntables (and many in the high-end audio world) is that spending more doesn’t get you more features. In fact, budget turntables often offer more features than high-end turntables aimed at the audiophile market. This is because high-end models aim to optimize the various components for sound quality, while budget turntables focus on features like Bluetooth connectivity that audiophiles won’t miss.

Like most other home stereo components, choosing a turntable is all about where you want to put your money. The highest quality turntables provide better sound quality, but it’s definitely a case of diminishing returns, and most people will be perfectly happy with mid-range or even budget models.

Headphones or speakers?

You’ll also need an audio output device to hook up this turntable, as most models don’t have built-in speakers or a headphone jack.

Headphones are often cheaper to start with than choosing speakers for a stereo, but that’s not always the case. You can get great-sounding headphones for around $150, but that’s not all you’ll have to spend if you don’t already have an amplifier or A/V receiver.

If you’re starting from scratch, your best bet for sound quality is to go with a dedicated headphone amp. These aren’t cheap, but they won’t perform as well as a quality A/V receiver, and they’ll often sound better.

Do you already have a hi-fi system? Then you’re probably good to go. The only component you may need to add is a preamp to boost the deck’s output to line level. This is only necessary if your receiver doesn’t have a phono input and your turntable doesn’t have a built-in preamp.

Finally, you can use your home theater system if you have one. These are often not ideal for music, but if you’ve spent a lot of money on a hi-fi home theater system, they’ll sound great. Just be sure to play back your recordings in stereo, not ‘virtual surround’, as this can degrade the stereo image.

Where to buy vinyl records

Once you have a turntable and a setup with headphones or speakers, it’s time to start buying records. Of course, like everything else, you can find vinyl records on Amazon or other retailers, but that’s not necessarily where you’ll find the nuggets.

There are several specialty online stores that sell vinyl, depending on what you are looking for. For more independent or under the radar artists and genres, you have Amoeba Music or even Bandcamp. In the meantime, if you’re more of a collector and know the exact pressing you’re trying to find, there’s Discogs.

However, none of these online options are worth sorting through vinyl records in person. With used drives, condition is a big factor, so it’s nice to be able to inspect the drives with your own eyes before spending your precious cash on them. This is true for music stores, but just as true for garage sales and thrift stores.

Buying records is as much about the journey as the destination, and rummaging through crate after crate before you stumble upon a great find is part of the fun.

Take care of your collection

With digital music, we have lost the habit of keeping physical music collections in shape. With vinyl, you’ll need to be careful each time you put the needle down on the record and each time you pick it up, as this can damage both the needle and your records.

You will also need to clean and maintain your equipment and collection. For your record player, that means occasionally replacing the needle or cartridge, while for your records, that means keeping them clean. Luckily, there are kits like the Big Fudge Vinyl Record Cleaning Kit that make this a simple job.

That might sound like a lot of work, and compared to listening to Spotify or Apple Music, it is. It’s also much more rewarding, so take your time and enjoy the ride.

RELATED: How to Build a Fantastic Vinyl Collection on a Budget

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